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|Kimberly Peirce, director of the breakout hit Boys Dont Cry, talks with friend and fellow director, Tamara Jenkins, about her wayward youth, her classified next film, and her search for the perfect moment.
TAMARA: Are you allowed to say anything about your new project?
KIM: Its a film about a real murder that was never solved. My cowriter, Andy Bienen, and I figured out who did it, how they did it, and how and why it was covered up by the concentric circles of people around the killer.
TAMARA: Wait. You solved the crime?
KIM: Well, Andy and I researched for about seven months. By the time we were done, we were very certain that we were right. We went through all these archives including the papers of one guy who was very high up in the conspiracy who had burned a lot of his papers.
TAMARA: Whose archives were you looking at?
KIM: Many of the people involved were on the national stage, so their archives were part of the public record. And at the time of the murder, the publics imagination was very invested in this case.
KIM: Here were all these people who were accustomed to putting down every detail in their records. And yet when you get to this particular case, theres nothing. The documents have simply been destroyed. But through the research, Andy and I came to understand how some of these people wrote about other cases, and we began to get a sense of each of their characters Oh, this is how so-and-so would have handled this case. Norman Mailer talks about this phenomenon in Executioners Song You begin to understand the lies.
TAMARA: So you actually caught some of the surrounding characters in lies?
KIM: Absolutely. One person would tell a story. Another person would contradict the first persons version. You interview the first person again, and they change their story. Its just like when your friends lie you know how to read their half-truths.
TAMARA: Do you and Andy spend most of your time together on the phone, or do you collaborate in person?
KIM: On the phone! We cannot be anywhere near one another when were working. Wed kill each other.
TAMARA: You dont lie around an office like Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond?
KIM: No, no. I think were in a different era. Its better for him to be at his house in front of his computer, and for me to be at my house in front of mine. I wear a headset, and its like were talking all day long in each others ear. Were in each others presence when were on the phone. I walk around, I go out on my deck and Im with Andy. Its very stream of consciousness.
TAMARA: Do you argue much, even on the phone?
KIM: Its interesting. Weve noticed that we always start fighting the day before we have to write a scene where our characters argue.
TAMARA: You guys are like an old married couple. Its hilarious.
KIM: Yesterday we were not getting along. It was a bad day. At one point Andy was like, I think I hate you too much right now to write this scene. [laughs] And then I realized, I think thats actually what this scenes about. So we went ahead with the scene, and it came out really well. We hadnt been able to capture the conflict until we had a huge fight ourselves. The best is when we actually take on the characters traits Im all for it.
TAMARA: So it sounds like you and Andy are creating a sort of docudrama. I dont mean a cheesy movie-of-the-week docudrama, but a docudrama of the highest order.
KIM: Well, the story comes out of reality, but hopefully were finding a deeper emotional truth that is more mythical or symbolic. My inspiration would be something like what Shakespeare did with Romeo and Juliet. There were tons of different versions of that story out there when Shakespeare took it on and made it work Oh, change this, move that, and then youll have a real story.
TAMARA: Theres always a certain power and structural clarity to the truth.
KIM: Whats so beautiful in this case is that the characters created the event just as much as the event created the characters. I dont know how to put it any more simply than that. Elia Kazans beautiful with that kind of stuff the way he creates an overarching superstructure, and the way he feels the inner nature of his characters. His films always convey an organic unity you know, On the Waterfront, East of Eden.
TAMARA: Your first film, Boys Dont Cry, was also based on a true crime story. Its interesting that so far, your source material is always documentary.
KIM: Yeah, I dont know where that comes from. Although originally, I thought I wanted to be a photojournalist.
TAMARA: Really? So you had a documentary impulse.
KIM: Well, I thought Id be a photographer and travel around like the Capra boys just cover war and all kinds of stuff. And I tried to do it. I quit college when I was eighteen because my parents wouldnt sign off on my financial aid, and I went to Japan. I lived in Kobe and I had a darkroom in Kyoto and I traveled all over the country. I went to Korea and Hong Kong.
TAMARA: How did you earn money in Japan? Were you teaching English?
KIM: Actually, because I had blond hair I could model as the girl next door. I was eighteen years old, and three hundred dollars a day was a lot of money.
TAMARA: Were you modeling for catalogues?
KIM: Actually, I never knew where the pictures ended up. One time, the agency was looking for a girl from Spain. I was like, Well, thats not me. And they said, No, you seem Spanish. So I wore a banner that said Spain in Japanese.
TAMARA: I want to see those pictures!
KIM: And then I taught English to Japanese mafia lawyers. That was wild. These were guys who represented monks whod gotten in trouble for tax evasion. They already spoke some English, and theyd say, Read J.D. Salinger to us.
TAMARA: What finally brought you back?
KIM: At the end of two years, having traveled all over Asia, and having gotten into a Japanese university, I thought Id never come back. And then I had one of those fateful moments. I had a yearlong ticket on Korean Airlines that I thought had run out. But the airline called and said, We have one seat, and your tickets about to expire. And all of a sudden, I realized, Oh, Im American. I want to go back. So I went to my bank and withdrew ten thousand dollars at once, which you can do in Japan. I put the money in my sock and flew home with it. I used that money to finish college.
TAMARA: But what made you decide that you wanted to become a filmmaker instead of a photojournalist once you got back?
KIM: Well, photography didnt feel like enough anymore. I needed narrative movement. I wanted to be able to build emotional structures. I wanted something that could match my interests and my enthusiasm because I had been set on fire by the world, in a way. I mean, I had just traveled all through Thailand looking for the perfect moment, which I finally experienced.
TAMARA: The perfect moment. What was it?
KIM: I didnt know what it was and I didnt even know if it could exist, but I felt that I was on the verge of it. I was racing around Thailand on a motorcycle, out by the Golden Triangle.
TAMARA: Whats that?
KIM: Its where all the drugs come into the country. And there was a guy named Kuhn Sah, who was the big drug lord. And my dad was a drug dealer too, so I thought, Oh, I need to find Kuhn Sah because hes like dad. [laughs] So I was on my motorcycle driving fast. And cars drive on the other side of the road in Thailand.
TAMARA: Oh no.
KIM: Yeah I was slowing down for a curve on the wrong side of the road and a truck came around heading straight for me. I turned the bike and crashed. I went flying over the top I got completely bloodied up. Then the truck stopped and the driver, a farmer, picked me up. He didnt speak any English, and I didnt really speak Thai. He took me to a border hospital, and this place was like the Fourth World, not even the Third World. I was in and out of consciousness, and they brought me into a room and laid me down, and I just started screaming, Fuck!
TAMARA: Because you were in so much pain?
KIM: Yeah, it was terrible. There was a twelve-year-old girl who had a hook for a needle, and she was stitching me up with no anesthesia. And then I looked over and saw that doctors were putting a guys finger back on. The girl motioned to me that he had been clearing the fields with a machete and had taken his own thumb off. And he was sitting there utterly peaceful.
TAMARA: She was pointing to him as a good example?
KIM: A good example of how to shut up. So I looked at him and all of a sudden I realized, This is severe pain. Just go ahead and feel it, because it will go away. I laid back and let her sew me up, and I didnt scream any more.
TAMARA: Wait. This was the perfect moment?
KIM: No, no.
TAMARA: How much torture does one have to go through to get to the perfect moment?
KIM: Its coming, its coming. I had been traveling with friends, and we had plans to go down south. So the doctors gave me painkillers, and they wired me up, and I got on a bus that had the coldest air conditioning I ever felt in my life. They were playing Death Wish III on these little televisions on the bus, and Charles Bronson was screaming, and I was completely out of it. Finally, we made it down to the beach. I couldnt go swimming because I couldnt get wet. I was living on a cot. Eventually I healed enough to walk around, and we went to a place that was three islands away from Thailand. And there I was on a cliff, watching the sun plunge down into the water. There was nobody around for islands and islands. And all of a sudden, there it was. Oh, my God, I think its the moment.
TAMARA: Being in this beautiful place.
KIM: Being anonymous and not caring about anything. And it was the first time I put my camera down. I did not photograph it. The only recording was in my mind I have been here, my eyes have seen this. The moment presented itself, and then it was gone.
TAMARA: And this is what caused you to give up photography?
KIM: Well, I came back to the States and Id had my moment. I had my ten thousand dollars, and I finished school. And everybody at the University of Chicago was going to grad school and becoming a professor. And one day I looked at Lauren Berlant, my professor, and I said, Im not a photojournalist. Im not an English professor. I knew what I wasnt, and I kind of knew bits and pieces of what I was. I was at a loss. And she was so smart. She looked at me, and she said, You really want to be a movie maker.